Friday, October 17, 2014

The Simple Act of Singing Together

The other day I had occasion to dig around in the trunk of my car, and among other treasures I found was what has become my soundtrack for the week: Farewell to the World, the double-CD of Crowded House's final concert (in its original lineup) from the Sydney Opera House. Lead singer Neil Finn is one of the world's great living pop song writers, and that is surely on display, but the thing that's captivated me on this listen, the thing that keeps me listening - the thing that makes me glad for an excuse to get in the car, quite honestly - is the band's showmanship.

"She came all the way from America.
She had a blind date with destiny."
A crowd that had waited on their feet the whole day hears that line from "Mean to Me" off the band's first album and erupts in no-longer-contained excitement. The band knew it would happen, and they milk it and reward it throughout, with interactive interruptions to the set, like a call-and-response recitation of a beer slogan, a segue from the nightmare-inspired "Sister Madly" into "Climb Every Mountain" from the musical Sound of Music, and a Tina Turner impression that I can only guess is of her dancing, not her singing, since it's announced from the stage but YOU DON'T HEAR ANYTHING.

An unbelievable energy fills the record from beginning to the final chorus of "Don't Dream It's Over," with the crowd singing along and occasionally taking over singing and not bothering to forgive the band when the drummer drops his sticks or the guitarist plays the wrong chord or the singers butcher the lyrics of "Italian Plastic" because there's nothing to forgive: the goal of the evening has been achieved, the world and the band have had and bidden their fare-thee-wells.

"Hey now, hey now - don't dream it's over!
Hey now, hey now - when the world comes in
They come, they come to build a wall between us.
We know that they won't win ..."
You can't end a Crowded House concert with anything other than "Don't Dream It's Over," their first and most enduring hit. But the song that I keep going back to, the one I play on repeat, isn't a Crowded House song; it's not even an entire song, actually. It's the chorus of a song by the Australian group Hunters & Collectors, a song that has become a treasured classic there even though it's hardly known here in the States. The band quickly cedes the singing of it to the audience.

"We may never meet again.
So shed your skin and let's get started.
And you will throw your arms around me."
The original version of the song is intensely overproduced in all the ways you might imagine a mid-1980s pop song might be overproduced - sonic equivalents of too much hairspray and eyeliner and apocalyptic angst. But here it's stripped down: an electric guitar strumming the chords and thousands of people shouting the wordless refrain in unison. Originally an ode to a sexual encounter with a lost love, in the Sydney Opera House it takes on a more transcendent quality: Our lives are so fleeting, so transitory, and yet the things we do even in the limited encounters we have with one another can go on and on and on. Let's not weep over it; let's allow ourselves to be awestruck by it. Let's give ourselves to this moment together.

This is the sort of dynamic that churches all over the world would give their left lung for, I think. There are a lot of naysayers who think that contemporary praise and worship are thinning the theology of the church, that the fault for the church's cultural decline lies square at the feet of songwriters and worship leaders who force congregations to repeat the same pious pillow talk over and over and over again. I can see their point; song lyrics should mean something, and too often in mass-marketed pop worship (likr mass-marketed pop anything) they start to mean nothing. But there's something that those who fetishize ancient hymns often overlook: We are bound together not just by what we sing together but by the simple act of singing together itself.

TWEET THIS: We are bound together not just by what we sing together but by the simple act of singing together itself.

"Our lives," Dorothy Bass writes in the introduction to her book Practicing Our Faith, "are tangled up with everyone else's in ways beyond our knowing." It's why we can sing a nonsense lyric such as "Oh yeah!" at the top of our lungs alongside 160,000 other people and walk away feeling like we've been to church. We already know what we know, what we believe, what we assume to be true. What amazes us is the hints we get here and there that there is more to it than what we know, that there is life and meaning and majesty beyond us.

It's why atheists are having church services now, and it's why even agnostics and cynics and Baptists will still receive the Eucharist in moments of pregnant silence. It's why message art of any kind is so hard to pull off: putting too fine a point on our songs and paintings and films and sermons and blog posts for that matter stops a moment of transcendence in its tracks and shouts "Did you see what I did there!?!"

My point? I guess it's this: You don't have to make a point to make a moment sacred; you just have to enter into it, receive it and take it with you. And it helps if you're not alone when you do it.

TWEET THIS: You don't have to make a point to make a moment sacred. You have to enter into it, receive it and take it with you.

Here's video of Neil Finn singing the entirety of "Throw Your Arms Around Me" with his friend and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder. I hope you enjoy it, and if you can muster up the moxie, I hop you join in on the chorus.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Hidden Cost of Making All Things New

Toward the end of the apostle John's grand apocalyptic vision, our Lord Jesus Christ takes his seat on the celestial throne and declares with triumph:

"I am making everything new! ...
These words are trustworthy and true!"
Having now arrived on the far side of quitting one job and taking another, selling one house and buying another, leaving one state (Illinois) and taking up residence in another (Colorado), I must confess that, at least lately, these words don't sound like unqualified good news to me.

Don't get me wrong: I love my new job and my new house and my new state. It has mountains in it. I've seen them. People who live here apologize to you if the weather isn't absolutely perfect. It's a good thing that we're here now. And yet the way from there to here has taxed my energies and revealed my insecurities. And it's cost a lot of money.

Mountains of fees and unexpected costs associated with selling and buying a house. License and registration fees for our cars, my wife's counseling practice, even our cats. Little things we need for setting up and settling into our house, some of which we know we already have but can't find in our basement full of boxes. Money, money, money.

TWEET THIS: "I am making everything new!" ... These words don't sound like unqualified good news.

And that's just the money part. The logistics of attending to all these adjustments taxes our brains and drains our energy. We drove all over town for several weeks, dealing with this or that, never really knowing where we were going. I still couldn't tell you how to get to Target, and yet Target constantly beckons.

And that's just the logistics part. A new town means new church, new neighbors, new friends, and until you've worked that all out a new town means no church, no friends, and neighbors who wait for you to make the first move even though you don't have the least bit of energy left to make the first move. Not to mention that you're lost in this new place, craving a new familiarity, persevering as best you can until the bewilderment finally passes.

I'm making it sound awful, I know. Pity the poor blogger. In fact we've been helped immensely along the way by people who have, in fact, reached out to us. A longtime acquaintance became a treasured friend virtually overnight; a couple of coworkers have been reliable guides and gracious companions throughout our transition; we've had dinners with friends and families we rarely saw back in Illinois, and we've got a surprisingly full social calendar. Stepping back and objectively assessing the scene, I can see the good in all the new.

But life isn't a matter of stepping back; it's a matter of stepping in and wading through, of accepting the reality you're presented with and living well in the midst of it. And reality is a story being written, which means there is always something new on the horizon, some resolution to the current drama, some plot twist that no one saw coming. Even we are changing, not simply our circumstances: I'm not the person I was in Illinois, because in the process of moving from there to here, of letting go of then and accepting the reality of now, I am being made new.

TWEET THIS: "Life isn't a matter of stepping back; it's a matter of stepping in and wading through."

So are you, for the record. Don't get cocky. The process of change, happening as it is on both a cosmic and a subatomic level, is a humbling thing, and whatever it produces in us, it probably will make us more humble if we let it.

And humility isn't just a virtue in this case; it's a resource. With humility we are better equipped to endure the embarrassment of asking for what we need. With humility we are more prepared to see the needs of people experiencing change and to offer ourselves to ease the burden. With humility we are better positioned to step back from the story we find ourselves in and to see the good news hidden in all this change, all this newness.

"I am making all things new!" Jesus says, and he wouldn't say it if he didn't mean it, and if he didn't mean it for good. I'm sort of counting on that, because in the midst of all this change, any good news is a gift.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mass Destruction

I recently attended a reunion of my mother's family. Not everyone in the family was there, but it seemed at times as though everyone in the world was there. The Gradys are Irish Catholic, which means they are both prolific and prodigious. And well-lubricated; in addition to two Grady-reunion-themed t-shirts we each went home with a Grady-reunion-themed pint glass - an appropriate memento if ever there was one.

I had to leave early the day after the reunion for a cross-country road trip, so while I got to enjoy the fun of the reunion, I missed what might have been the most memorable part of the weekend. My uncle, the priest (now retired) offered to have the family over to his house for Sunday morning mass. Now, I'm not sure who all went - a few of my uncles, aunts and cousins have left the fold over the course of their adulthood - but my uncle the priest estimates about a ton and a half's worth of people showed up for the Eucharist. (That may be his subtle way of suggesting that some of us need to lose some weight, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.) I've heard of ministers comparing attendance numbers, but I've never heard of them calculating by tonnage. Anyway, at some point that morning the mass was interrupted by what my uncle describes as the "big bangs."

We have photos from the crawl space beneath the living room in my house. Two of the three bricks that, together with a cinder block, support the floor joists are cracked.
There's a joke in there somewhere. And if not a joke, there's at least a sermon illustration. I can't really think of one, but maybe you have ideas you can share in the comments.

I'm no great fan of church construction; I think a lot of money goes into it that could be better spent on other things. Moreover, I think often church architecture enhances the separation of the church from the world around it, and subtly trains congregants to assume a fortress mentality, as though the church is their only protection from the world, as though their first priority ought to be protection from the world. I rather like the idea of something so quintessentially Christian as liturgical worship being celebrated in a family room packed to the gills with rough-and-tumble guests. It's a dynamic tension that, apparently, can make a big impact. It's a potentially atomic mass.

Anyway, no one was hurt at the extra-dense mass in my uncle's family room, although apparently none of my family members saw anything wrong with sending my cousin into the crawl space of a house that could collapse at any moment. My uncle is looking into what would be involved in repairing or replacing the damaged bricks. In the meantime, I'll keep thinking about what jokes, and what applications, can be culled from this momentous mass. I welcome your help to that end.

Friday, August 01, 2014

On Making Like a Tree

It's just one of the many memorable phrases from the great film Back to the Future: "Make like a tree, and get out of here." Oh Biff. He means "Make like a tree and leave."

I suppose that's what trees do: they produce leaves; it's part of the natural order of the universe. But by bungling the phrase Biff draws our attention to what's more obvious about trees: they stay. Often -- barring any disruptive event (say, deforestation) -- they stay for centuries.

And yet Biff remains essentially correct: trees also "leave," by which I mean they generate leaves, which eventually fall off and mulch the ground, each tree's own little contribution to the circle of life. As fiercely protective as trees are of their roots, enabling them to out-stay virtually everything around them, they are also decidedly prodigal with their leaves.

This is meaningful for me these days, as my wife and I prepare to leave our house of thirteen years, my home city of twenty-two years and her home city for her whole life. We're moving from greater Chicagoland, where it often seems we know everyone, to Colorado Springs, where we know virtually no one. We're making like a tree and getting out of here.

But that's only part of the story, isn't it? Even when trees uproot -- when they're burned by fires, which occasionally happens in Colorado, or when they're blown over by storms, which occasionally happens in Illinois -- they are still participating in the ecosystem in which they were planted. When anything ends, it becomes the incubator of something new; it's the great economy of creation and the triumph of the God of the living over the tyranny of death.

TWEET THIS: When anything ends, it becomes the incubator of something new.

I recently read some thoughts on trees from Andy Summers, the guitarist for the Police, in his memoir One Train Later:

"Guitars begin as trees, float down rivers, get hauled into lumberyards, are sawed into planks, and then are dried, cured, and left to age. They arrive in the player’s hand still with the memory of a tree, atoms and molecules reforming to become a guitar. A history begins; fate is determined; events take shape."
I like this. Before a guitar is a guitar, it's a tree. A tree gives up something true and beautiful about it, and through a careful, deliberate process it becomes something out of which truth and beauty can flow. Its treeness remains, but now its guitarness can take shape.

It's part of the calling of every human, I think, to make like a tree: to take root, and to bloom and blossom, to offer shade and support to the ecosystem we find ourselves in; but then also to leave, and in that leaving to make new and different contributions to the world around us. They may be less, they may be more, they may cost us much, but they are ours to make, and we do no good if we refuse to make them.

TWEET THIS: It's part of the calling of every human to take root, but then also to make new and different contributions.

So we're making like a tree, and we're getting out of here. And when we arrive in our new place, we hope to make like a tree, lay down roots, and give ourselves to something new. It's scary, and it's costing us a lot, but it's what's next for us.

Moving is like a death. It's worth mourning as such. But it's also a new beginning; indeed, the death itself contributes to the new thing being created. We're grieving our leaving, but we're eager to plant new roots and start our new life.

Image shamelessly lifted from Kurt Willems's Facebook page.